Don Ohlmeyer, ground-breaking MNF producer, dead at 72

Don Ohlmeyer had a simple philosophy as the ground-breaking producer of ABC's Monday Night Football in the 1970s.

"Our approach was (forget about) the football fan; he's going to watch anyway," Ohlmeyer said. "We need to attract other people to make this a successful show in prime time."

Thanks to the electric pairing of Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford, Ohlmeyer helped ABC accomplish that goal, transforming the early version of Monday Night Football into perhaps the most popular and iconic sports program of all time. He continued that unconventional approach during a second stint as MNF producer in 2000, when he inserted comedian Dennis Miller into the booth.

Ohlmeyer died Sunday at the age of 72, Al Michaels announced during the telecast of Sunday's Giants-Cowboys game on NBC.

"Our Don is known publicly for his work as a ground-breaking sports television producer and media executive. However, for those closest to him, Don's true legacy will be the warmth and generosity he showed family, friends and oftentimes complete strangers.

"Later in life, Don embraced his role as a grandfather with the same passion he had previously put into his work. Of his many interests, Don had a special place for art, golf, history, rock n' roll, and Notre Dame football. Don was a larger-than-life presence who will remain as such in our thoughts and prayers, forever."

Ohlmeyer had a long, successful career in many endeavors. He even served as head of NBC's West Coast division in the 1990s, and his tenure included such hits at Seinfeld and Friends.

When it comes to football, Ohlmeyer always will be remembered for the considerable impact he had on televising the NFL.

"Don's on Mount Rushmore, right alongside (former ABC president) Roone Arledge and (Former Fox Sports chairman) David Hill," said former NFL Network President and CEO Steve Bornstein in a Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal story on Ohlmeyer in 2012. "I don't use the term 'genius' too much, but Don would be in that category."

Howard Katz, former president of ABC Sports and NFL Network executive, once said of Ohlmeyer, "He is one of these larger-than-life characters who has a vision, can describe the vision, get people to buy into the vision, and then execute the vision."

Ohlmeyer started working for ABC as a student at Notre Dame in 1967. He quickly became a protégé of Arledge, then the head of ABC Sports.

When ABC acquired the rights to air Monday Night Football for $8.5 million in 1970, there was considerable doubt about whether the NFL would succeed in prime time. CBS actually passed in part because it didn't want to move The Doris Day Show off Monday night.

Arledge had the vision to veer away from tradition. Rather than continuing with the rather staid, Xs and Os format that passed for network coverage at that point, he created a three-man booth centered around the pompous and bombastic Cosell and the country jester Meredith, with Gifford guiding the show.

Arledge then tabbed the young, brash Ohlmeyer to make it work. Ohlmeyer took full control as producer in 1972, and teaming with innovative director Chet Forte, the NFL became must-watch viewing every Monday night. The presentation, raucous and unpredictable, was unlike anything that had been previously seen in a sports telecast.

"Frank thought everything about the NFL was terrific," Ohlmeyer said in a 2005 NPR interview.

"Howard thought it was all a fraud. And, Don thought the owners were a bunch of crooks and the players were terrific. You could throw anything out there that you wanted, any question that you wanted, and you could have an interesting debate, argument, discussion, whatever you want to call it. And that's what makes for good television. That's what makes for good company in your living room."

One of Ohlmeyer's biggest challenges was dealing with Cosell, who was a man of immense ego and insecurities.

"I remember he used to call me after every MNF game and say, 'Kid, was I terrific tonight or what?'" Ohlmeyer said. "And I'd have to tell him he was terrific and then I would ask him if I could go to bed now."

In 1977, Ohlmeyer left ABC to become executive producer of NBC Sports. On Dec. 20, 1980, he actually did a complete reversal from the Cosell-Meredith-Gifford trio. NBC aired the New York Jets-Miami Dolphins game without announcers. The set-up, lacking the context of announcers describing the action, was not well received, and it never was repeated.

Ohlmeyer later joked, "All the stuff I've done in my career, and that's what I'm going to be remembered for. It serves me right."

Ohlmeyer eventually got one more crack at MNF. In 2000, Katz persuaded him to return as producer in an attempt to recapture some of the old buzz.

"Don was the one producer who could transform the show into something magic and get people talking about Monday Night Football again," Katz said. "Don was unique in his ability to bring not just sports knowledge but true showmanship to a prime time program and make it something out of the ordinary."

Ohlmeyer immediately put his stamp on the telecasts with his unconventional move to hire Miller. As was the case with Cosell, he hoped Miller's provocative humor would attract non-traditional football viewers. Ohlmeyer talked about wanting to bring "a sense of danger" and "unpredictability" back to the program.

"Don was a legendary television executive who always sought innovative ways to tell stories and captivate audiences," ESPN said via statement. "His groundbreaking work on ABC's Monday Night Football helped turn that franchise into a primetime television hit. He cared deeply about the TV industry and contributed to ESPN in many meaningful ways throughout the years. Our condolences to his loved ones."

Miller proved to be polarizing, which thrilled Ohlmeyer.

"People are saying, 'This is fun,'" said Ohlmeyer late in the 2000 season. "I would never compare anybody to Howard. But like Howard, nobody is left without an opinion about Dennis. The worst thing you could say about someone in television is 'He's OK.' To me that's death."

Citing the stress of travel, Ohlmeyer decided to step away from the post after the season. However, his impact was seen again when ESPN placed columnist and TV personality Tony Kornheiser in its MNF booth in 2006.

Ohlmeyer was honored for his work with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 Sports Emmys. All told, he won 16 Emmys and two Peabody Awards.

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